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Working Paper Conferences

Frank Pasquale posted a comment on one presentation at the recently-concluded Intellectual Property Scholars Conference.  I just got back from IPSC and wanted to record a couple of observations while they’re fresh.  More below the jump.

IPSC has grown.  What was originally conceived as a relatively intimate setting for presentations by newcomers and critiques by senior IP scholars is now an intellectual property free-for-all.  I mean that mostly in a good way.  The conference is very large; it includes presentations by scholars from all across the seniority spectrum; and dinner-and-break conversations are generally very high quality.  If you’ve been in IP teaching for five years or less, I’d say that IPSC is close to a must-attend conference. 

The size and significance come with costs.  Some presentations feature mostly finished work, or at least mostly finished drafts.  But some “papers” aren’t really papers at all, however, but proposals for papers.  Some ideas are raw, and some are half-baked.  Panels are multi-tracked, and while steps are always taken to discourage people from voting with their feet in the middle of a session, people do.

The growth in the size of the conference partly reflects the tremendous expansion in the number of scholars teaching intellectual property law over the last decade.  It also reflects the fact that IP suffers from relatively little of the sclerotic hierarchy that characterizes some disciplines.  If you’re a junior scholar and want to present your work, IP offers at least two fora:  IPSC and WIPIP (the Works in Progress Intellectual Property) conference in the Fall. 

Diversity in paper and presentation quality also follows from a reluctance by the organizers to discipline eligibility too harshly.  I organized WIPIP myself last year, and I know well the conflicts that are built into managing a conference of this sort.  Presenters submit and are selected on the basis of abstracts; they are rarely pulled from the program if a paper is not eventually forthcoming.  To preserve the spirit of the conference, the organizers largely have to rely on norms of professionalism that suffuse the discipline. 

Or that don’t.  Law professors who don’t have terminal degrees don’t get trained in the ethos of scholarship the way that graduate students are supposed to, so learning an ethos is sometimes a hit-or-miss proposition.  In IP, with the growth in the field over the last several years, there are a couple of places (in addition to not submitting a paper when an abstract has promised one) where the misses are pretty obvious. 

One is presenting raw and half-baked ideas at big public conferences like this one.  Presenting a work-in-progess doesn’t necessarily mean presenting an unfinished work.  There are times and places for sharing very-early-stage work:  With small numbers of trusted friends and colleagues.  At brown-bag lunches.  With an Associate Dean for Faculty Development, or a mentor, if there is one.  At roundtables organized for that purpose.   At a big public conference, however, the paper may not be in its final form, but the form that is delivered should be final.  That type of conference isn’t always a reputation maker, but it can be a reputation breaker.  And the audience will give better and more thoughtful feedback to a presentation that has been evidently thought through than it can to one whose gaps are obvious.

Two is not being aware of the historical context of the work.  By far the biggest flaw in presentations and papers by junior IP scholars (and sometimes by more senior IP scholars) was and is their evident ignorance of earlier work.  And not just or even work published within the last year or last five years; I’m thinking of the fact that a lot of foundational work published ten years ago or earlier remains significant today.  IP doesn’t have a sclerotic hierarchy, but it does have senior people who are still active scholars today, and their earlier work still matters.  And, of course, there is quite a lot of relevant work from decades ago and scholars no longer with us.

This lack of awareness isn’t uniform.  There are many newer IP scholars who demonstrate excellent sensitivity to scholarly context.  How to develop this more broadly is an important and difficult disciplinary challenge.  Law schools don’t automatically teach it.  Law review editors are unlikely to require it.  The echo chamber of law review content doesn’t necesssarily produce it.  Reviews and tenure letters could supply some of it, but the norms currently associated with those letters mean that they do so only rarely.  Conference organizers could implement more rigorous reviews of proposals, but at obvious costs in terms of access to presentation opportunities.  Works-in-progress and junior scholars conferences could be structured to reward it.  More experienced scholars in the field today could volunteer to provide it, both publicly and in one-on-one ways.  Some do, I know.  But much is left to be figured out on one’s own, and that leaves important gaps.

I’m open to suggestions.